Enbridge Line 5 tunnel: Not just a matter of jobs

aOne popular argument in favor of building a utilities tunnel at the Straits of Mackinac to replace Line 5 is that it will provide a lot of Michigan jobs.

This argument has come up before. It’s been used to support sulfide mining and fracturing for natural gas. This argument is really a “bargain with the devil.” The long-term economic, environmental and social downsides of these projects far outweigh their temporary benefits.

Initially such projects provide an influx of people. They demand the skills of highly paid engineers, scientists, managers and accountants, along with many other support personnel. However, few of these well-paid individuals will be located at the site of the project. Rather, they will be at the home office in some other state or even some other country. What these people earn will not be spent in the communities where the project is located.

It will be spent elsewhere. Yes, a large number of construction workers at the project site will be well paid. But experience has shown that many of these workers relocate to the project site on a temporary basis. When the project is complete, they go home or move on to another project.

Consider the impact of “fracking” on a community: Land must be cleared, service roads constructed, oil rigs assembled, pipelines built for gathering the oil, loading stations for tank trucks or tank cars constructed, drilling and fracturing carried out, etc., etc. All this requires lots of workers. When those workers move to an oil boom town, there is a sudden demand for more infrastructure — much more. From the building of big box stores to added housing, expanded police and schools, health care; the impact is immense. But it’s only temporary. After a few years, when the “construction phase” is complete, the work force drastically shrinks, leaving just a few who stay on to operate the wells. And when the crude oil or natural gas from that oil patch is depleted, even these workers and their families leave. Once adequately sized communities are then left with burdensome and costly infrastructure.

Let’s fast forward 10 or so years: The tunnel is complete. The jobs and financial benefits related to its construction have ended. The workers who re-located to our local communities have moved on. The communities are left with far more infrastructure than they can support. The big box store has closed. Teachers, police and firefighters have been laid off.

Roads that were improved are now in need of repair. The local “mom and pop” stores and restaurants affected may close and never reopen. In just a few short years the town has gone from a small, well-established, stable community to a boom town, then to an economic bust.

As bad as this sounds, it could be worse. Much worse. If the tunnel takes 10 years to build, Line 5 will then be roughly 75 years old. That is, if a catastrophic rupture has not already occurred. Should a rupture and subsequent closing of the pipeline occur it would be a worst-case scenario, as many Michiganders are aware. The University of Michigan study has shown much of the shoreline of northern Lake Michigan and northern Lake Huron will be covered with crude oil.

Michiganders understand the northern Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula are highly dependent on tourism, commercial and sport fishing, boating, hiking, biking, swimming, and summer residents. If we only consider jobs — thousands of jobs — will be gone, many forever. Fishing, both commercial and sport, will be ruined. Local property taxes will take a severe hit. The list goes on and on. People will be forced to move elsewhere.

The impact on infrastructure will now be regional, and not confined to just a few communities. This is the environmental, economic and social risk we are presently taking, and will take, every day for at least the next 10 years while the tunnel is under construction.

For the sake of a short-lived boost to the economy, should the residents of Michigan continue to allow Enbridge to roll the dice with our environment and our way of life, just so they can to reap huge profits from Line 5?

Editor’s note: Gary Street, Chemical Engineer, M.S., P.E. Rt. Rev. Rayford J. Ray, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan.